In Memoriam: Gerald Weiss, 83

Was Chief Planning Officer at Chase Manhattan

Chuck Neul remembers his mentor:

It was with great sadness that I learned over the weekend of the death of Gerald Weiss, retired SVP of Corporate Planning & Development, and Chief Planning Officer at Chase Manhattan Bank, NA, for some 20 years, and prior to that, senior strategist at the General Electric Corporation, where he had worked for over 20 years prior to joining Chase Manhattan.

Gerry was 83 when he passed away
from pneumonia on January 29, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

It's a challenge to convey succinctly the unique talents of someone who, over time, was my boss, mentor, informal business adviser, career guide, co-consultant and close friend.
I believe the best way to provide some measure of Gerry Weiss' brilliance, importance and impact is to provide some anecdotes representing, during the years I knew him, those qualities.

When I joined Gerry's Strategic Planning group in 1983, I was one of five VPs in a group that had two other smallish units, comprising no more than perhaps 20 professionals. Gerry had originally been recruited to Chase by David Rockefeller, where he inherited a much larger staff, including a bevy of individuals responsible for business unit strategy development. These latter he rapidly transferred back to their respective businesses, preferring, instead, to run a smaller, more objective and creative group focused on advising the Chairman and CEO on how to manage the bank to increase shareholder value. Few SVPs would willingly give up staff and budget, but Gerry knew what he wanted, and didn't care to be an empire builder.

For the next decade, while larger, more cumbersome and less-focused corporate planning and strategy units vanished from America's large corporations amidst leveraged buyouts, layoffs, restructurings and corporate raids, Gerry maintained his small but influential group of strategists, management scientists and M&A specialists.

Over the next few years, by working closely with Gerry and two of his former GE colleagues, Jack Grossman and Don Heany, I learned that Gerry had reconstituted the vaunted GE Corporate Planning unit, in design and style, of his own mentor, Jack McKittrick. McKittrick, for whom a Google search will return this reference, was the strategic mind behind Fred Borch's management at GE. Gerry explained to me on several occasions how McKittrick, due to his personal wealth, enjoyed an objectivity at GE that few others could have managed. In his own way, Gerry duplicated McKittrick's philosophy, style and aggressive attitude.

Few others at Chase Manhattan realized how much of GE's legendary strategic planning function, attitude and skill had been grafted into Chase with Gerry's arrival.

To those of us fortunate to have worked for and with him, Gerry provided a very rare ability, constantly on display through example, to remain objective and honest on matters of corporate strategy, amidst heavy pressure to simply go along with what was either popular or desired by the Chairman or CEO.

To wit, when I told of Gerry's death to a close friend, contemporary and one-time colleague in Gerry's shop over 20 years ago, he replied, "I will always fondly remember Gerry as the smartest corporate strategy guy I ever came across and as one who had the confidence and principles to say no even when his bosses wanted to hear yes (Ohio thrift acquisitions for instance). He set a great example for all of us."

I can't really express that aspect of Gerry better than my friend and his one-time staffer did.

Another former Chase Manhattan colleague, with whom I spoke on Sunday about Gerry's passing, mused, "You just never imagine some with Gerry's brilliance and intellect ever not being there anymore."

During the era in which Chase Manhattan foolishly rushed into acquisitions of failed S&Ls in Ohio, Maryland and Florida, and unwisely overpaid in a bidding war for a real estate development financier, masquerading as a bank, in Arizona, Gerry steadfastly warned against such expensive squandering of bank capital. Only a few years later, one of the expansion's staff, a friend of mine, calculated the deadweight loss of capital invested and losses incurred in the various purchases throughout these states at a then-staggering amount nearing $100MM, at a time when that kind of money was material to Chase's bottom line.

Most Chase employees never knew of the creative initiatives developed by Gerry Weiss, which would have vaulted the bank into the forefront of U.S. finance. Among his ideas were a combination with Norwest Bank, then a leading regional power, to allow Chase shareholders the benefits of Norwest's younger, better management team's prowess with our larger bank's asset base and business mix. Others included moving the regulatory charter to the UK, in order to have the freedom to buy or start businesses in areas prohibited in the United States.

Yet, at the same time, over a quarter-century ahead of his time, Gerry prophesied catastrophe from a removal of Glass-Steagall. To paraphrase him back in the mid-1980s on the topic, "All that will happen is the addition of too much underwriting capacity, managed by mediocre commercial bankers, driving down profits for everyone. This will require ever-riskier behavior from all the investment banks, brokers and commercial banks, leading to bigger systemic losses, as new, poorly-understood, risky asset classes are invented to drive higher profit margins."

That's exactly what we saw in the last few years, as Wall Street responded to Congressionally mandated expansion of marginal quality residential finance lending.

Gerry had the unique ability to both pragmatically understand when a project or idea had hit a brick wall, while also retaining a tireless optimism that, eventually, good strategic ideas and common sense would triumph.

He never shirked from giving his blunt, honest opinions to the chairmen he served, David Rockefeller, Bill Butcher and Tom Labrecque. The first two valued Gerry's objectivity and wisdom, so that they were never so threatened by his candor that they resorted to asking him to leave.

Having worked closely with Gerry and my then-partner in Corporate Planning, Debbie Smith, in his latter years with Chase, I saw how the bank began to lose momentum and languish, as the CEO ignored Gerry's recommendations on resource allocation and prioritization among businesses, to regain growth and improve income.

The unfortunate result of ignoring Gerry's advice came home to roost after Gerry's retirement, when mutual fund manager Michael Price forced then-Chairman Labrecque to seek a merger with Chemical Bank.

Even in so-called retirement, Gerry Weiss had influence well beyond what would normally be expected of a Chief Planning Officer. He continued to guide the Boston-based Strategic Planning Institute, a long-ago spinoff of GE's own planning group from the 1960s.

When Chase EVP Marshall Carter was recruited by competitor State Street Bank to become its next CEO, Carter, upon arrival, retained Gerry as his personal strategy consultant. That relationship continued for roughly a decade, until Carter's own retirement from the well-regarded trust bank.

During the years after Gerry's formal retirement from Chase Manhattan, I saw measures of his continuing influence and the high regard in which well-known business leaders held him. Gerry introduced my own corporate performance work to Carter, whom I also knew from Chase, at State Street Bank.

When Gerry found some related work on productivity and economics that I had developed to be of interest, he contacted David Rockefeller. Within a few months, we had a meeting with the former Chase Manhattan chairman discussing my work.

Similarly, my evolving work on corporate performance, productivity and resource allocation found its way to a meeting among  Gerry, Jack Welch, then CEO of GE, and me.

It only took a letter from Gerry to these business leaders suggesting they take a look at some interesting new business research, for their actions to indicate the credibility they attached to Gerry's opinions.

Throughout my own career, I have never worked for, or even met, any senior executive who was as intelligent, curious and secure as Gerry Weiss. At his own formal Chase Manhattan Bank retirement dinner, he explained his longevity, influence and success as resulting from hiring the best people he could find, then facilitating their efforts, not trying to take credit for their work.

People on Gerry's staff routinely presented to and worked closely with the bank's chairman, CEO, and Vice-Chairmen. Thanks to him, a fortunate group of younger managers gained valuable insights into, experience with, and real understanding of the often messy, inefficient and highly political nature of actual business management and decision-making at senior levels in a modern US corporation.

As I reflect on my relationship with Gerry Weiss over more than 25 years, one anecdote remains with me that I believe depicts his unique mix of talent and style.

My partner, Deb Smith, and I had labored on several drafts of a key presentation that we would be giving to Chase's then-chairman, Bill Butcher. By then, both Debbie and I were in our 30s, and had had years of of working for senior managers who would micro-manage such presentations, then take them to a more senior executive for presentation.

Gerry was different. Sessions spent working on a presentation like this one were highly interactive, with Gerry taking on a role as equal team member, not our boss. Ideas bounced back and forth, with a lot of laughter and sarcastic remarks about the managers and culture through which we typically had to work to effect results.

On a Monday morning, after several iterations of the presentation, he assembled the heavily-marked up pages, stacked them together, and looked at us.

'Well, I think you've done all you two can. I know how I want to tweak some of the points, and there's no point wasting your time making you try to read my mind.'

Where most executives would have had us do another two or three iterations to precisely machine the presentation to his requirements, Gerry retired to his old IBM Selectric typewriter for the morning. Between his edits and his secretary's finishing touches, he produced the final presentation – which Deb and I gave, while Gerry observed, largely silently.

Nobody else for whom I ever worked, before or since, possessed such intellectual security and confidence. Nor was so effective.

As my one-time colleague noted in his email, Gerry set a great example for those of us fortunate enough to have worked for and with him.

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